Great White Fleet: Definition & History

Instructor: Matthew Hill
The Great White Fleet was a sixteen battleship fleet that sailed on a world voyage from December 16, 1907 - February 22, 1909. Its primary purpose was to showcase American naval power.

Theodore Roosevelt and the Modern U.S. Navy

The backdrop to the Great White Fleet was in the United States' effort to modernize its naval fleet in the 1880s with modern steel ships. The British HMS Dreadnought of 1906 was the first modern battleship and the model for all ships to follow. When Theodore Roosevelt became president, he was determined to build a modern battleship fleet. Two key U.S. naval theorists had a major influence on his thinking. The first was Alfred Thayer Mahan , whose two-volume work 'The Influence of Sea Power upon History 1660-1783' argued that naval expansion was essential for empire building. The second was William S. Sims, an experienced naval officer and former aide to Roosevelt, who urged the U.S. to modernize its naval gunnery systems and firepower capabilities.

The U.S. gained new global responsibilities following the Spanish-American War with the acquisition of Guam, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Hawaii, and a naval base in Guantanamo, Cuba. In the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, the Japanese navy crushed the Russian navy in a shockingly one-sided war. The Japanese perspective is crucial to the story of the Great White Fleet. In the late nineteenth century Japan had embarked on a massive modernization program. Its defeat of the Russian navy was a sign of its success that made western colonial powers nervous. Like its European counterparts, Japan coveted more territory and inch by inch began seizing territory in the Pacific. Short of war, the Europeans could not stop them. Tensions between the U.S. and Japanese further developed over restrictive American immigration policies aimed at Japan. Roosevelt, committed to protecting its Pacific interests and fearful of Japanese aggression, sought to demonstrate American naval might with a worldwide cruise of its new sixteen battleship fleet.

The Great White Fleet at sea
Great White Fleet

The Great White Fleet Sails

Dubbed the Great White Fleet because the ships were painted all white, they set sail on the morning of December 16, 1907 from Hampton Roads, Virginia on its long voyage around the world. The main battleship fleet was accompanied by auxiliary ships for support. The popular ballad 'The Girl I Left Behind Me' played in the background and an enthusiastic President Roosevelt waved goodbye from his presidential yacht, The Mayflower. Rear Admiral Robley Evans commanded the fleet from his flagship, U.S.S. Connecticut. On the first portion of its voyage, the ships sailed around South America making port of calls in Trinidad, Brazil, the Strait of Magellan, Chile, Peru, Mexico, San Diego, and San Francisco. Two notable events were a bar-fight in Rio de Janeiro, where U.S. sailors were cleared of wrong-doing, and a nine day celebration in Peru. Almost as if the Peruvian people saw themselves as part of some grand adventure, they even celebrated George Washington's birthday while the U.S. sailors were in port. This portion of the voyage ended in May 1907 in San Francisco were the sailors practiced mock combat drills to sharpen their skills and to test the operational ability of their fleet.

Commemorative Postcard of the Flagship, U.S.S. Connecticut
Postcard of U.S.S. Connecticut

Before the fleet resumed its voyage in May 1908, Rear Adm. Evans was relieved of command due to poor health and was replaced by Rear Adm. Charles S. Sperry. The fleet headed across the Pacific and stopped in Hawaii before jettisoning off to New Zealand, where the crew was entertained by a tribal Maori ceremony. In Australia, the fleet was greeted by 250,000 onlookers and entertained for several days. In Manila, the crew was quarantined due to a cholera epidemic on the island and they then battled a horrible typhoon in the South China Sea. Japan was a major surprise, given the tension between the two countries. The flag officers were entertained in the Imperial Palace and junior officers were granted railroad passes and trolley passes to travel about at ease. Champagne, toasts, and parties were lavished on the senior command and the visit mutually benefited both countries.

Crew of the Great White Fleet in Auckland, New Zealand
Fleet in Auckland, New Zealand

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